Turtle tattoo designs are not highly common, but not exactly rare, either. Designs range from playful to photorealistic, tribal to cute.
Of course, the simplest reasons to get a turtle tattoo are because one feels some affinity for the animal itself or for its habitat, the water. Turtles are often considered docile, intelligent, and persistent creatures—remember the story of the tortoise and the hare—and are often thought of as self-contained, even socially cautious. When trying to get an introverted person to open up, we might refer to coaxing them into “coming out of their shell.”
Their longevity is the subject of numerous wives’ tales as well as scientific study, and various species of turtles live well past the 100-year mark, with the longest verified lifespan coming in at 188 years. Despite the turtle’s constant and enduring nature, their ability to thrive on both land and water also marks them as adaptable and flexible.
A great deal of mythology concerns turtles. In China and India, it was thought that the world sat atop an enormous turtle’s shell. (One of the Hindu god Vishna’s incarnations is also a turtle.) In some related myths, the “layers” of the turtle’s body are also thought to reflect the structure of the universe: the shell as heaven, the body as the Earth, and the undershell as the underworld. This same idea of the world being atop a turtle’s shell also existed in some Native American cultures, where the turtle is also sometimes connected to the idea of mystic female energy. In some cultural depictions, turtles were involved in the creation of the world.
Taking these (and several other) traditional histories into account, a condensed picture of the meaning of the humble turtle emerges: it carries the weight of the world on its back slowly and steadily, even stoically, is wise and intelligent, and is greatly resistant to dangers that may surround it, though they are also adaptable.
Within the larger grouping of “turtles” are a number of subspecies that are common as tattoo designs and visually distinct from one another, including sea turtles, box turtles, and tortoises. Their behavioral differences lend variation to the tattoo’s meaning as well. Sea turtles, for instance, are of course associated with the ocean, but they also migrate great distances, unlike many other more sedentary species. Tortoises, as a counter-example, live longer and grow larger than other species.
Turtle tattoos are common among both men and women, with the most common placement being on the foot (for women), back, or shoulder. Even among more realistic designs, many artists take liberty with colors, inking their turtles in bright and bold hues.
The shell of the turtle may also be tattooed on the back, which has fairly obvious connotations—it identifies the person with the tattoo as turtle-like themselves, able to protect themselves and live a self-contained life within their shell if they so choose.
Simple, cute turtle designs are seen as well, most often on women. These work in any color and are less about realism and give a more playful impression.
Tribal variations on the turtle shape are also increasingly popular. In fact, turtle shapes are considered a traditional Maori design element. The turtle’s shell may be used to house a symbol, character, or other small image.
Other designs may be more geometric in nature, based more on solid shapes than realistic details. These are not quite in a tribal style but have that kind of atmosphere to them.
Similarly, turtles are sometimes seen in Japanese tattoo designs, including sleeves and full back tattoos. These are not very common, but they’re very unique and stylish, and may relate to a series of famous Japanese folktales about Urashima, in which the turtle figures prominently.
And, of course, you could always get a tattoo of the most famous turtles of them all (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).
Those who feel they are similar to cultural depictions of turtles or wish to be more like them—stalwart, patient, wise, and adaptable—may find a turtle tattoo design to be an excellent choice.